Have you been looking for love in all the wrong places?
Move over, eHarmony and Match.com, and head to your local animal shelter to Meet Your Match. The color-coded program evaluates shelter pets and the people looking to adopt them in an effort to match personalities, energy levels and needs.
Playing Cupid with Meet Your Match helped workers at the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals increase adoptions by nearly 20 percent in just a few years. In 2008, when they launched the program, they found homes for 2,891 dogs and cats. Last year, 3,452 pets were placed.
At the same time, returns dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent, said Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA.
Meet Your Match was designed by Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Potential adopters answer 19 questions on subjects such as whether they want a playful or laid-back pet, how their animal will spend its days and how they will spend together time with their new dog or cat.
For the pet evaluation, animals are put in a room in front of a camera. Staff members watch how quickly they settle, lie down, curl up and what else they choose to do. They watch the animals play and interact.
Pet observation sessions last only 15 minutes, but the staff in Richmond has become very adept at reading the animals, Starr said.
"There is no pass or fail or good or bad," Weiss said _ for human or animal.
People and pets are assigned a color _ green, orange or purple _ and one of three categories in each color category.
Dogs are watched for friendliness, playfulness, energy level, motivation and drive. A dog might be a laid-back couch potato, a curious busy bee or an action hero go-getter, Weiss said. Green is for dogs who like to be physically and mentally engaged, orange for middle-of-the-road dogs who enjoy regular activity and interaction, and purple for dogs who are easygoing.
Cats who test green thrive on adventurous, carnival-style living. Orange is for go-with-the-flow pets, while purples require a less exciting, library-like home where they can be nothing more than a love bug, Weiss explained.
Merope Lolis of New York, New York, tested at the ASPCA's Adoption Center as a good fit for a purple love bug _ a cat that would be on its own much of the day. But she fell in love with a beautiful calico cat before realizing that it was a "frisky cat who was going to need lots of attention when I wasn't available. I found that information to be very useful to me," Lolis said.
Lolis kept looking and found a 5-year-old, light gray cat named Miss Piggy that had tested as orange, in between the active greens and mellow purples. She's had the cat since December and says it turned out to be "a good match, a good fit."
In the end, she said, "I paid less attention to what I thought was important _ what she looked like _ and more to personality and whether it would work in the long run." She also renamed the cat Christina Penelope "because she was much more regal than Miss Piggy."
When Weiss was curator of behavior and research at the Sedgwick County Zoo, she developed a behavior assessment test that is used by shelters around the country. Building on that, she came up with the Meet Your Match dog program. She developed the cat match program after she joined the ASPCA in 2005.
Shelters across the country use the matchmaking programs, building promotions and holiday ad campaigns around it. Valentine's Day is the most popular and comes with a reduction in the $95 adoption fee the shelter usually charges, Starr said.
However, with Meet Your Match, "love happens all year long for us."
Richmond was one of the first shelters in the country to embrace the matchmaking plan, Starr said. The hike in the adoption rate didn't happen immediately, but developed gradually, after a lot of training and a dedicated staff, she said.
The best part of the program is that it encourages people to focus on things like which pet will be the right fit for their lifestyle and their personality _ instead of appearance.
On the other hand, Weiss said, with pets as with people, "we know love at first sight happens," and Meet Your Match is flexible enough to accommodate that. "We don't want to get in the way of love at first sight."
Somestimes, Starr added, the "best match is a mismatch and simply going home with the right expectations."